My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.
That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.
(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too )
Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”
Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:
- accept the status quo
- go along to get along
- reliably defer to authority
- do the work that someone else puts in front of them
Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:
- ask searching questions
- challenge received assumptions
- work independently when needed
- build far-flung collegial relationships
- try new things to meet new needs
To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?
As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.
The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librariansthe Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quoserves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.
How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.
Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”
Back in the real world
When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?
When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?
Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?
And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?
That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.
Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.